Abstract: No Business Extant in which Women Are Not Employed: Businesswomen in Cities across the United States, 1840-1885

Susan Ingalls Lewis


Using <i>The Employments of Women</i>, Virginia Penny's 1863 study of female occupations in the United States, as a jumping off point, my paper explores the variety of businesses owned or managed by women in cities across the United States between 1840 and 1885. I compare Penny's findings with my own research in the R.G. Dun &amp; Co. credit ledgers, presenting evidence from over twenty mid-nineteenth-century communities. Although most female proprietors evaluated for credit did operate small millinery establishments, fancy and dry goods stores, or groceries, nineteenth-century American women also entered numerous other ventures, as reflected in both sources. However, while Penny discussed such small business and self-employment opportunities as breeding and selling canaries, preparing and marketing botanic medicines, public speaking, and hairdressing, the Dun reports identify female proprietors brewing beer, selling wallpaper, managing hotels, manufacturing coffins, and operating hardware stores. I conclude that because of her focus on employments for native-born, single women without much capital, Penny misses the business opportunities open to immigrant wives and widows. I also argue that these two important sources for women's business history should be seen as additive rather than conflicting, reflecting two distinct populations of nineteenth-century businesswomen.